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Will Circular Resources be Priced to Compete with Virgin Raw Materials?

textile recycling

Cyndi Rhoades, founder and CEO of U.K.-based textile upcycling start-up Worn Again, raised a key question about the competitiveness of circular supply compared to virgin resources during Fashion Positive’s recent recycling innovation working group at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in New York.

“I’m convinced we’re going to have no problem whatsoever with brands committing to circular supply so long as the quality is what’s promised and the price is right, but do we want circular resources to follow spot prices of virgin resources which will fluctuate up and down?” she asked, noting that one purpose of circular was to create something that would be competitive over time, such as long-term stable pricing. “We’ve got the feedstock (textile waste), it’s everywhere around us. How are the brands going to be involved in supporting this? What happens if the price of oil drops rock bottom like it is today?”

For Worn Again, she said, commercial viability has always been at the forefront of what the team is trying to achieve. “We don’t want to create a premium product. If the goal is to replace virgin resources we need to be able to compete,” she stated.

That’s why Worn Again is working with H&M and Kering (through its Puma label) as development partners to test that its chemical recycling technology—which separates and recaptures polyester and cellulose from cotton with the aim of reintroducing them into the supply chain—is a viable option for brands with a global presence.

“Really the purpose of this was to develop this technology in collaboration with the industry so we weren’t in a silo—it’s fit for purpose,” Rhoades noted.

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At the moment, the environmentally-friendly process (which is still in development) can handle 100 percent polyester, 100 percent cotton and any combination of the two. It’s achieved proof of concept of the chemistry during numerous scale trials, with the goal of producing PET chips that are the equivalent of, if not better than, virgin-derived resources as well as cellulosic outputs. Hurdles, however, still exist.

Namely, cash is needed to commercialize it.

Currently seeking between $5 million and $8 million in funding, Rhoades revealed that H&M is willing to pony up for half of that and said she’s in the middle of some advanced investment conversations with another partner.

But even if and when the technology is industrialized, consumer involvement is another concern.

“Communication is what the brands do incredibly well with huge advertising campaigns. But we’re going to need a lot more [marketing] if we’re going to increase existing global collection of end-of-use textiles from 20 percent to 100 percent. This is our feedstock for the process so it’s crucial we get these numbers up,” Rhoades said, stressing the need for new incentives. “What’s beyond the in-store collection and the discount on future purchases [offered in H&M]? Maybe it’s polymer loyalty cards or fiber credits based on what you’ve bought as well as what you’ve returned.”